The mosque murders in Christchurch on March 15, 2019 made me aware that New Zealand has a “chief censor”, which seems a somewhat quaint title in the 21st Century. It’s nevertheless true that someone (or some group of people) have to make determinations about when – if ever – something should be deemed unsuitable for public distribution, and the title of “chief censor” is at least unambiguous.
I’m not going to discuss if speech should ever be censored in this post, having addressed it on numerous prior occasions, for example here and here. To summarise my view, I regard free speech as a very important value, that should be among our top priorities, but I don’t think it always, or necessarily, trumps any other value.
In 2011, I wrote a column defending Sam Harris against critics of his perceived “Islamophobia” (no scare-quotes from here on, but please assume that I consider the term problematic, for reasons including those I outline below).
I no longer agree with all that I had to say then. At the time, I thought that Islam was the subject of more critique from Harris than other religions were because he regarded Islam as the most dangerous in a range of religious beliefs. In other words, I was convinced that he had a pragmatic, rather than prejudiced, reason for focusing on it. As I said at the time:
Harris, and atheists in general, do have a problem with Islam, just as they have a problem with Christianity. If Zoroastrianism was still popular, we’d have a problem with that too. But this generalised antipathy stems from the fact that religion encourages people to believe things on the basis of poor or nonexistent evidence. If we think it a good thing that people tend to believe what is true and disbelieve what is false, believing things in this way would be a harmful trait that merits discouragement.
This discussion never really goes away, but it’s foregrounded at present thanks to the barbarism of ISIL, and – on a more prosaic level – a recent CNN interview with Reza Aslan, and then the Bill Maher segment featuring Ben Affleck and Sam Harris.
I’m not going to focus on those interviews in their specifics, but I encourage you to watch them if you care about the context. There are also numerouscommentaries and critiques you could read – this one by Avicenna Last (on the Maher/Affleck/Harris segment) probably comes closest to capturing my response to Harris, and also includes a useful transcript of the show.
The purpose of this post is rather to make two points that are of general concern in this debate. First, on Islamophobia: Islam is of course not a “race”. However, there are other ways of being bigoted than simply being racist. And, when one responds to a charge that you’re prejudiced by (simply) asserting “I have nothing against Muslims, it’s their religion I hate”, you might forget that this can serve as an evasive gambit.
The religion is held by people – and held with great commitment and sincerity – so criticism of it might be difficult to separate from criticisms of them. Scott Atran is worth reading on the sociology and psychology of belief, and how wilfully obtuse the language of “I respect people, but not their ideas” can sound to people who hold the ideas you happen to disrespect.
Second, I do think that Harris (and others) don’t consistently make the point that it’s primarily the extremists that they think problematic. Their language (and sometimes tone, which I think important) can create the impression that their criticisms apply generically to Islam, especially (I’d suspect) to people of that faith.
The point that Affleck was trying to convey is that there is a tendency for critics of Islam to read or sound like fundamentalists themselves, in part because they assume that an audience is as capable of separating the context from the logic of argument as they are. Our discussions take place in a political context, and persuasion depends in part on recognising that.
It is relevant, as Affleck points out, that more than a billion Muslims are only similar to ISIL in the sense that they all pray five times a day. They’re not similar in the sense that they will kill for this right, and I’m also not persuaded by Harris’s claim in the End of Faith that moderates provide some sort of “cover” or “legitimacy” for extremists.
They all believe in the same god, sure, but from within a radically different value system – one which allows for beheading infidels and opponents, and the other not. The fact that these two sorts of Muslim are nominally on the same spectrum of belief doesn’t mean they should be conflated with each other.
Harris and other critics of Islam forget – or speak as if they have forgotten – that believers can have an interpretation of a holy text, rather than a set of dogmas related to it. Instead, critics take the most reactionary views and treat them as representative of the whole, or more broadly as the most authentic form of Islamic faith (with thanks to Kenan Malik for this insight).
What this move allows for is the invalidation of the beliefs and ways of living that are more typical or representative. If a Muslim were to say “well, I’m not offended by Danish cartoons”, you can retort with “but you’re not a typical (or even a ‘real’) Muslim, because you’re not being a literalist when it comes to interpreting your holy texts”.
But if the typical Muslim isn’t a literalist, why use that as the standard by which to criticise others? Isn’t it rather unusual to judge people by the standards of the most pure, or best, exponents of any skill, virtue of way of living? (“Son, I grant that you’re able to kick a ball, but you can’t be a real footballer until you’re as good as Cristiano Ronaldo.”)
How about if the anti-fundamentalists – like Harris – might be giving some cover or legitimacy for the extremists themselves, by making them seem more representative or relevant than they are?
Or, how about we make make an effort to keep those moderates on our side, by not speaking in ways that make it appear we see all Muslims as different only in degree, but not in kind – because when you say they are of the same kind, you’re telling your neighbour that she’s really just like the beheaders, when one dispenses with the tact.
Anti-fundamentalism can play into stereotypes, too – and maybe, in doing so, it can give some power to the extremists. Because if you cast them as martyrs, moderates will be surrounded with examples of their religious identities being questioned and attacked.
Would you think that makes them more, or less, less likely to join the secular battle against fundamentalism?
but a couple of people have gotten there before me – particularly Nelson Jones, who seems to have read my mind. As Jones points out, Trinity College has more Nobels than the Chinese, or than women, or any number of groups you might care to name (regardless of how carefully or accurately those groups were defined).
Yes, what he said was “a fact”, and in fact true. On Twitter, a few people have reminded me of this when I accused Dawkins of dickishness in the Tweet embedded above. I know that it’s a fact – but there are two ways of making the point that this isn’t the only relevant thing in this case. The one way is to say that facts aren’t all that matter – that there is a world of politics, and emotion, and strategy that might mean it’s sensible to point out certain facts at certain times, in certain contexts.
The other way of making the point is to agree that facts are all that matter, and to say that therefore, Dawkins should be wary of letting utterly predictable reactions get in the way of people seeing the facts that he’s attempting to highlight. As Jones writes, something in Islam (and this could easily be true for any other religion too) has gotten in the way of there being proportional representation of Muslims amongst Nobel Prize winners (and a number of other equally arbitrary metrics).
What that something is, is an interesting question – as is the question of whether atheists are disproportionately well-represented. But you can ask that question in less or more abrasive ways, and asking them in the way that Dawkins did will almost certainly result in making fewer, not more, people think about what the answer might be.
I’m not making the claim that it’s always wrong to ask questions abrasively – I’m making the claim that it’s disingenuous to say “I’m simply pointing out a fact”, or “everyone is over-reacting” when you have various options for how to express something, and you choose the one which a) doesn’t do any better a job of making the point and b) is likely to provoke more than alternatives would.
Twitter is not the place for nuanced debate. We (in general) broadcast, entertain, and often provoke. Dawkins is doing all of those, and he surely knows it. I don’t object, as I’ve said many times – it’s not a strategy that I want to employ for myself, but we need people to act as the lightning-rods. But that doesn’t mean it’s impermissible to ever say hold on, even on your strategy, that message is going to be lost in the quite predictable outrage. If people aren’t listening, you can’t do anything to budge their beliefs.
Read the Jones piece, as well as this one by Nesrine Malik. As Jones rightly points out, this is a pattern for Dawkins, and even (especially?) those of us who support his goals should be able to see how characteristic it is:
Dawkins’ well-honed technique (it often amounts to trolling) is to say something pointlessly provocative, wait for the inevitable backlash (the traditional response, playing on his well-known love of grammar, is “Your a dick”) and then express innocent bafflement that anyone could possibly object.
Another example from earlier this year compelled me to respond, because it seemed to indicate quite plainly how Dawkins’ Twitter behaviour is often more about provoking, than facilitating debate:
@RichardDawkins Next they’ll be talking about “French food”! When will the madness end?
In case it’s not clear to you what’s going on there, Continental and Analytic (to use the traditional, and contested, definitions) are different approaches to academic philosophy. It’s a summary term of a style of philosophy practiced in those regions, like (as my tweet highlighted) French vs. Greek food. These are both different routes to getting fed, and the styles of philosophy are similarly both routes to understanding the world. There is no necessary distinction between them, though – and therefore, nothing to deride by asking “what sort of a search for truth is region-specific?”
But absurdly, social media are so intemperate that we only seem to have two options in response to Tweets like the one that the post begins with: either to denounce Dawkins as an Islamophobe, or to support him vociferously, telling anyone who criticises him that what he says “is a fact” and that everyone is “over-reacting”. The middle-ground is, as ever, squeezed out of the picture – because on social media, we’re all shouting, all the time.
And I suppose it’s quite reasonable to worry about who might hear you, if you’re saying something like “hold on, it’s not that simple”?
André Gide remarked that “everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again”. So it is with the recent article by Mandy de Waal, who took Sam Harris (and the ‘new atheists’ in general) to task for ‘hate speech’, ‘bigotry’ and encouraging so-called Islamophobia. It’s difficult to know just where to begin in responding, as I find the content of de Waal’s piece disagreeable in almost every aspect.
Of course it is unfortunate, and prejudiced, for many commentators to have assumed that Breivik was a Muslim – and for those who assumed this, the bias is clear in how they concocted quite torturous narratives to explain why a Muslim would target kids at a Labour Party camp. It made little sense that he would (from those motives), yet the perceived equivalence between terrorism and Islam were too strong for some to resist.
And now that we know he was not a Muslim, but that he was instead perhaps a Christian, probably a Mason, and certainly an ethnic nationalist, much outrage has resulted from the selective use of words like “terrorist”, or “fundamentalist” – once he was revealed to not be Muslim, some columns and Tweets stopped referring to Breivik as a terrorist. This again exposes a bias, whereby something that is the subject of extreme fear and emotive reaction is illegitimately associated with a particular religion.
But this is the problem with stereotypes – they are blunt instruments, which even when grounded in something true, can be so broad as to capture many cases that are not true. And this one is founded in something true, despite how impolitic it might be to say so. The fact that Breivik might be a “Christian fundamentalist” cannot obscure the fact that much of what we describe as “terror” in the recent past has come from those that we caricature as “Islamic fundamentalists”.
The fact that some Muslims will say that Muslim terrorists are “not real Muslims”, and that Christians will say that Breivik is not a “real Christian” is irrelevant. People who commit acts of terror get their mandate from something or other – and if a belief system can be interpreted to provide that mandate, this is a reality (and a problem) that that religion has to deal with. And as Sam Harris pointed out, it is an unfortunate fact that as far as religious belief systems go, Islam is correlated with a disproportionately large amount of oppression and intolerance of competing world-views, including secular world views such as those that promote gender equality.
The violence in Oslo is no excuse for Islamophobia. But we don’t need (another) one – as with all religions, Islam teaches you that propositions with no (or poor) evidence can be regarded as fact. Religions allow you to engage in metaphysical Ponzi schemes, whereby debts can be paid later down the line – rather than you being accountable right now, for what you do in this life. Again, it doesn’t matter that this might be a poor reading of whatever scripture, from whatever tradition, you want to thrust in my face – these traditions are open to such interpretations in ways that others are not, and they have to take responsibility for that.
Breivik’s problem – or our problem, that is presented by people like Breivik – is that he is perhaps insane, and that he believes nonsense so strongly that he is prepared to kill for it. Any of us – and any religions – that encourage belief in nonsense is at least partly culpable. If a particular religion has a larger component of such nonsense than another – such as routinely allowing rights violations and perpetuating gender inequality – it is proportionally more culpable.
This remains true, no matter how many Muslims, or Christians, are appalled by the actions taken in the name of their chosen fictions.